Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Second Face of the Public Presidency: Presidential Polling and the Shift from Policy to Personality Polling

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Second Face of the Public Presidency: Presidential Polling and the Shift from Policy to Personality Polling

Article excerpt

Research on the public presidency has focused on the direct and often unmediated appeals that modern presidents make to the general public. Presidents have been portrayed as first among the talking heads--"going public" over the heads of members of Congress and other political actors to communicate directly with the general public. The result is that the "public presidency" has been defined as facing outward--the president talks and travels to the country. For instance, Jeffery Tulis (1987) suggests that changing norms of governance unshackled presidents from cooperating with members of Congress and freed them to personally deliver speeches (such as the State of the Union address) to public audiences in order to stir Americans against recalcitrant Washington elites. Samuel Kernell argues that changing institutional incentives motivated presidents to widen their external exposure by increasing their travel and speeches (cf. Edwards 1983; Kendell 1997).

What makes the "public presidency" public, however, is not only its outward oriented activities but also its systematic monitoring of the attitudes of the mass public. The public presidency is two-sided: Presidents take themselves and their policies to the public and they bring the public's opinions and perceptions into the inner sanctum of the presidency. Recent research has unearthed the second face of the "public presidency"--its sophisticated and routinized "public opinion apparatus" for conveying the public's sentiments to the president and his senior aides. (1)

The significance of the presidency's "public opinion apparatus" is that it links the public-talking and the public-listening dimensions of the presidency. What presidents say, how they say it, and where they make their comments is a function of what the White House learns from the public. Too much research on the public presidency has focused on the outward activities of presidents without adequately explaining the content of those activities and examining the reciprocal influence of the public on presidential activities. Put simply, institutionalized White House monitoring of public opinion is the flip side of presidential outreach to the mass public: Routine tracking of public opinion calibrates presidential appeals to Americans.

Connecting the White House's institutionalized apparatus for tracking public opinion with presidential appeals to the public has two implications for continuing research on the public presidency. First, it helps explain a significant empirical puzzle: What explains the content, tone, and place of public presidential talking? This line of analysis broadens the ambit of public presidency research: The emergence of an institutionalized apparatus for tracking public opinion challenges a fundamental tenet of theories about politics--namely, that politicians are crippled by imperfect information and uncertainty about the preferences of voters (Morton 1993; Calvert 1985). Examining the impact of White House polling on presidential behavior repositions the general debate over information uncertainty toward specifying the impact of information that politicians do possess. Second, the theoretical and normative significance of the public presidency lies in the two-way relationship between the president and the mass public. Analyzing the impact of presidential polling on presidential public statements raises fundamental questions about strategic theory and democratic norms that cut across particular institutions and systems of representative government. Put simply, the interaction of presidential polling and promotion strengthens the link between the study of the public presidency and broader theoretical and empirical debates.

Addressing the empirical and theoretical implications of presidential polling is a substantial research project. Recent research has provided a comprehensive historical overview of the origins of presidential polling (Eisinger 2003; Towle 2004) and its use among White House officials (Heith 1998) as well as the impact of private survey results on the policy positions of John Kennedy during his presidential campaign (Jacobs 1992b, 1993; Jacobs and Shapiro 1994) and on efforts to shape the image of President Richard Nixon (Druckman, Jacobs, and Ostermeier 2004; also cf. …

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